Thomas Erdbrink reports on an increase in Iranian nationalism driven in part by U.S. and Saudi hostility:
In short, it appears that Mr. Trump and the Saudis have helped the government achieve what years of repression could never accomplish: widespread public support for the hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is now a strong and capable state capable of staring down its enemies.
Hostility from abroad tends to make people side with their own hard-liners, so it should come as no surprise that many Iranians are responding to U.S. and Saudi antagonism in this way. Critics of U.S. Iran policy have warned for a long time that increasingly aggressive rhetoric and actions aimed at Iran will strengthen hard-liners there at the expense of reformers, and this report suggests that this is what has been happening. This is an unfortunate development, and it is made all the more so by the fact that there was an opportunity for improving U.S.-Iranian relations in the wake of the nuclear deal that was completely squandered. Since Trump took office, those relations have become even worse, and unless the administration makes significant changes soon relations between our governments will keep deteriorating in the future.
Perhaps the most discouraging part of this report was this anecdote about a reformist Iranian who had been inclined to give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt, but now assumed the worst about our government:
Arvand Dashtaray, a liberal-minded theater director, who has frequently injected veiled criticism of Iranian society and its leaders into his plays, now says that he and like-minded reformists and moderates were wrong to bet on the United States.
Mr. Dashtaray still dreams of bringing the experimental American playwright Robert Wilson to perform in Iran. But as for Mr. Trump, “he is the true face of the U.S., an unfair, weapons-exporting nation that doesn’t care about anybody and especially not about us.”
He added: “We need to understand that the U.S. has been playing with us all along. Trump is proving that our hard-liners were right all these years, to say that America cannot be trusted.”
Trump certainly deserves some of the blame for this, but Iran hawks from both parties are also responsible. Iran hawks in Washington have been insisting for years that the U.S. has not been “tough” enough on Iran, and they routinely accused Obama of “appeasing” Tehran when he was doing no such thing. There has been a fairly mindless bipartisan consensus that the U.S. needs to be much more aggressive in opposing Iran at every turn, and after a while this persistent hostility becomes hard for people in the targeted country to ignore. If the administration continues its belligerent rhetoric and confrontational policies, it will keep driving Iranians into the arms of their hard-liners. Reneging on the nuclear deal would be another gift to Iran’s hard-liners, since it would give them undeniable proof that the U.S. doesn’t honor its commitments.
This report should put to rest the conceit that most Iranians would respond to increased U.S. pressure on the regime by turning against their own government. Trying to isolate another government typically has the opposite effect of rallying people behind their most aggressive and nationalistic leaders. The best things the U.S. could do to weaken Iran’s hard-liners politically at home would be to stop the incendiary rhetoric, abandon the so-called “rollback” policy that the administration has announced, and stop indulging the Saudis and their allies in their reckless brinkmanship throughout the region. Unfortunately, we know that this administration won’t be doing any of those things, and Iran’s hard-liners will continue to benefit.